Reality? Fiction. Fiction? Reality.
Last June, Lifetime slapped the first four episodes of its new drama UnREAL up on their website free for the streaming. After my knee-jerk reaction–“Oh my god, it’s Liz from Roswell!”–I watched the first episode of the series and found myself totally intrigued. I’ve never watched the Bachelor but I do regularly binge on Top Chef, Chopped, Project Runway, and the full spread of Gordon Ramsay reality shows on Hulu. I like UnREAL‘s unsettling argument that many of the most entertaining moments on reality competitions are essentially coerced into existence through morally suspect backroom agreements, pacts, and bargains. It’s disturbing that a “real” story is entirely fabricated just to provoke a gasp-worthy moment, though I can’t say I’m surprised. It did make me wonder…
Do TV audiences really believe that what they see on screen is real? Or do they not even care that it’s fiction? Because if not, why don’t you read a damn book and save reality-TV victims humiliation, shame, and public meltdowns immortalized in GIFs? C’mon people. Get your shit together.
Of course part of the appeal of UnREAL is Shiri Appleby’s character, Rachel. Rachel has recently returned to the production crew after having a very visible breakdown. Her own sense of what’s “real” and what’s not is colored by the open admission that she is in therapy and likely takes meds. There are hints that the reality we are seeing as we watch UnREAL is of dubious quality. My guess is that the camera is not an entirely reliable narrator, and I don’t mean just when it’s filming Everlasting, the Bachelor-esque reality show that’s the focus of the series. I know. If I think about it too much my head hurts, and I just need to breathe. Or take a step back and get some perspective.
Anyway…part of the reason why UnREAL is so good is that it touches on appeal characteristics common to engrossing fiction: a flawed heroine offered a shot at redemption, a dysfunctional workplace, ubiquitous dubious morality, the deconstruction of the very word “reality,” biting competition for romantic love (and a British accent), unexpected plot twists, and the high-stakes, sobering realism behind the creation of a story told in the language of sin and vice. Perhaps you’re already a fan. You’ve arrived here at Broke By Books having gone ahead and blown through the first season of Lifetime’s UnREAL. You’re pumped up for the second season of the show (airing starting in early June), but you need a fix now. Fortunately there’s a backlog of fiction titles to feed your hankering for UnREAL-esque characters, plots, and themes. Allow me to introduce you to these enchanting novels perfect for fans of Lifetime’s UnREAL…
Young Adult literature (aka YA) is overflowing with reality TV-themed novels (The Hunger Games is an extreme–and extremely frightening–example), but I want to highlight just a few.
First, Something Real by Heather Demetrios is outstanding. Okay, maybe I’m a little biased because I was fortunate enough to take a class with Heather, who is a really awesome and generous teacher, and I also loved her 2015 novel I’ll Meet You There so so much. Anyway, Something Real chronicles Seventeen-year-old Bonnie Baker as she is once again shoved in the spotlight when she, her 11 siblings, and her controlling mother revive their hit reality show, Baker’s Dozen. A child of the reality TV era, Bonnie knows full well about drama both fabricated and real.
I loved watching Bonnie interact with the wider world as she tries to keep her family’s history a secret, but I loved her relationships with her siblings even more, especially her brother Benny. Demetrios is so good about making this all relatable–despite Bonnie having a completely different life than my own, I totally identified with her quest to be normal and exceptional all at once. Oh, hey, the love interest was pretty great, too…
Reality Boy by A.S. King shows the male POV of the reality TV childhood, albeit with a more heavy-handed tone than Something Real. In King’s novel, Gerald grew up in front of cameras as his childhood rage and anger issues were documented for all the world to see. Now 17, Gerald is trying to wipe clean that slate and reclaim his identity.
The problem is, some of that aggression remains. Gerald has to battle whether or not he is or is not the angry little boy he once was. Who does he want to be? And who can he be? Most teens battle raging emotions–and raging rage–as they navigate who they really are in times of immense and confusing change. Similar to Demetrios, King explores experiences that many teens relate to even if the protagonist is a recovering reality TV star.
One more YA: Maybe you’re feeling a little angry for the women competing on Everlasting. Maybe (hopefully) you feel like they need to be treated as human beings instead of bodies. Maybe you have read one of my all-time favorite books, The Disreputable History of Frankie-Landau Banksand you want a YA read-a-like that also questions complacency to the patriarchy and features smart and sassy young women…Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens is exactly what you need. A dark comedy, Beauty Queens takes 13 young women flying en route to a teen beauty competition and crash lands them on an island with mysteriously creepy things.
The young women unite against evil both material and abstract between painfully honest reflections on expectations for teen girls in contemporary society and heart-to-hearts that are more empowering than “Aww”-worthy. This novel seems to have divided Goodreads, but it has 5-star reviews from some of my favorite super reviewers and friends. Okay but maybe you’re in the mood for something a little bit older and non-YA…
If you love Shiri Appleby’s Rachel and all the backstage drama behind the on-stage drama I recommend Choose Us by Caylie Marcoe. Classified as New Adult, Choose Us explores a similar Bachelor-esque competition from Riley’s perspective. Riley is the assistant to the bachelor-in-question, Travis, and also his best friend.
Friends-to-lovers is one of my favorite tropes, and this novel is especially awesome because the characters are flawed yet relatable. UnREALfans will appreciate a love story ripe with sexual tension underlining an already caring relationship. It’s totally adorable. Let’s talk nonfiction, shall we?
Maybe you actually want behind the scenes dish. If you can handle the narcissism and shallowness of The Bachelor (or, for that matter, just about all reality TV) you can probably handle I Didn’t Come Here to Make Friendsby Courtney Robinson, a former contestant on The Bachelor.
I have not read this, but apparently devotees of Bachelor-nation swear by it. And let’s admit it, the contestant you love-to-hate is universal across all reality TV competitions, no less so because the editors (and maybe people like Rachel and her co-workers) paste a story together from hours and hours of footage as they attempt to craft a visual narrative that is entertaining. If every story has its heroine, every story has it’s villain.
Okay let’s say the reality TV stuff is getting to you. It’s too much, just too much. However, you’re intrigued by the backstage negotiations and the like. If so, I cannot think of a more perfect novel than Sway by Kat Spears.
Sway is a YA contemporary romance about Jesse, a teen guy who is known for his ability to talk someone into doing anything, or talk key information out of people. He’s charming, and he deals in the currency of influence, rightly earning the nickname “Sway.” Now Jesse is asked to persuade resident good girl, Bridget, to go out with a man-pig, and he finds himself falling for her.
And maybe you’re so fascinated by Rachel’s successful negotiations that you’d like to learn how to be just as persuasive (but not in a creepy, dishonest, or immoral way). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini should do the trick. This nonfiction title is a guide on how to get people to agree and say “yes” based on foundations of psychology. This kind of stuff fascinates me, and the book has over 15,000 5-star reviews on Goodreads.
I really think you cannot go wrong with this book. Hopefully, though, you won’t use its tactics to do wrong, however…
So there you go. These books should get you started on read-a-likes for Lifetime’s promising new drama, UnREAL, just in time for the second season airing in June 2016. Hopefully you’ve found something that taps into what you find so appealing about this twisted and delicious show.